Tomato Pie, revisited: 2016 Brings Perfection

As I write this, I want you to bear in mind that none of the following is likely to be useful to you until next summer. But I’m writing it now for future reference. In July 2017, 2018, and so on — assuming the world hasn’t come to an end — when you are seeking information about tomato pie, this is where you go.

I recently had a sad realization, which was that an entire summer had gone by and I hadn’t made a single tomato pie.

When I happened, during the week, to walk past a farmer’s market where one of the stands had baskets of big, beautiful tomatoes for $4 per basket, I decided it was a sign, and I bought a lot of tomatoes and carried them home.

Last night I set to making tomato pie. I was feeling tired and unenthusiastic about the whole enterprise, but I was determined to do it, not only because a year without tomato pie is an unacceptable proposition, but because if I didn’t use up several of these tomatoes, there’d be no hope of eating them all before they began to rot, which would mean my good intentions and money would all be just down the (bleached and Boraxed) toilet.

I pulled myself together and decided to try a couple new steps in my tomato pie recipe this year, to see if I could substantially improve the finished product. The fact is: While we love tomato pie, some pies are better than others, and there’s always one problem, which is that the bottom crust becomes mush, and the dining experience is sadder for it.

I am happy to report that this pie was a huge success. The two extra steps I added to the system made a world of difference. My husband reported this pie was “teashop-worthy,” and possibly the best tomato pie I’d ever made. I think the best one I’d yet made, prior to now, involved using Liuzzi’s ricotta cheese, which this one did not; I have a plan to make another pie soon using that cheese, to see if I can nail this recipe down and declare it perfected.

Readers who are looking for a fast, easy meal should go look elsewhere. This tomato pie requires a lot of steps. There’s no getting around it. Sometimes, you have to invest heavily in a project to get it right, and I’m afraid there’s no faking it with tomato pie.

You will need many things:

  1. the makings for biscuits sufficient to make a double-crusted pie;
  2. Tomatoes (probably about two lbs., fresh and good — not hard spring or winter tomatoes; canned will not do; this is a summer recipe)
  3. some green thing in the basil/scallion/parsley range
  4. mayonnaise
  5. cheese. More than one kind. Last night I had feta and Parmesan.

The first step is to peel your tomatoes. I never used to do this but have decided it improves the pie dramatically if you do it. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Cut little Xs into the bottom of the tomatoes; fling them into boiling water for 30 seconds, maximum (15 seconds may well do the trick). The skin will begin to peel back. Don’t boil them for very long, because you will ruin the tomatoes and have to start over. Fill a bowl with ice and water, and use a big spoon to put the tomatoes in the ice bath. When they are cool enough to handle, peel the tomatoes. The tomatoes must then be sliced and seeded and drained: you want as little liquid as possible to remain. (You can, if you wish, save the tomato liquid for cooking something else, or just drink it. I drank mine mixed with seltzer, which put some pep in my step, enough to se me through finishing making dinner.) Put the sliced tomato flesh into a mixing bowl and set aside.

By this point you have decided what your green element is going to be, and if you’re going to get creative with any other elements in your pie. I like scallions in my tomato pies, and on a whim decided to add some frozen corn. img_7196Wash a scallion, and slice it thinly, using the white and green parts. A cup of frozen corn, thawed, should be roughly chopped (you can do this down and dirty on your cutting board with a chef’s knife, though I suppose some folks would do it in a food processor). Add them to the mixing bowl with the tomatoes. Add any seasoning you want.
I might have done some ground pepper, though I didn’t; I did add a heaping tablespoon of capers. The truth is, I keep things pretty simple. NB: I do not add salt to this mixture, because my feeling is that the cheeses and mayonnaise in tomato pie are quite salty enough.

Now it is time to assemble your biscuit crust. Get the oven heating to 400° while you do this.

I find that the usual biscuit recipes, which start with two cups of flour, make a perfect amount of dough to make this pie; if you’re using a smaller or larger pie plate (mine is 9”) you may find you need less or more dough. But the basic recipe goes like this:

Combine in a large mixing bowl: 2 cups all purpose flour; one heaping tablespoon baking powder; a teaspoon of salt. Combine with a fork. Using your fingers, cut in six tablespoons of very cold butter and blend until you have coated the flour with fat. Food writers always say this mixture should resemble a coarse meal, and that’s basically true. Stir in a scant cup of milk and stir. When the dough begins to cohere into a ball, stop using a utensil to work it, and use your hands to fold it together until you have a smooth dough. If the dough is too dry and crumbly, add milk, teaspoon by teaspoon. Set it in its mixing bowl and put the bowl in the fridge so you can wash your hands and get the next step together.

The next step involves two things: getting ready to roll out a bottom crust, and getting some stuff ready to put on that bottom crust.

To roll out the crust, I highly recommend using what the pros call a pastry cloth, and what I would describe as a flat-weave towel (something that doesn’t produce lint), and some flour. Spread the towel flat on your countertop and sprinkle maybe 1/4 cup of flour over the middle of it. This will be the surface you use to roll out the crust. If you did it on the countertop, you’d need to use more flour, and that works, but too much flour and you’ll toughen the dough. This way, you’ll have a bare minimum of extra flour on the biscuit crust.

In a smallish mixing bowl (could be a cereal bowl, I don’t care) combine about 1/2 cup mayonnaise (Hellman’s works for me; anyone who makes homemade mayonnaise to make tomato pie is a git, as far as I’m concerned) with cheese. Last night I used some feta, because I had half a cup of crumbled feta sitting around, but you could use shredded cheddar or Muenster or crumbled goat cheese (goat cheese is really good) or whatever floats your boat. Ideally it’s a cheese that will melt fairly well — I don’t like to use all cheddar, because cheddars don’t actually melt the way I’d like. But cheddar plus something else is dandy. Whatever cheeses you choose, have a cup of it ready to incorporate into this mixture. Be aware that if you use the stuff that comes pre-shredded in a bag, the cheese is coated with cornstarch or something, which will produce a slightly different end result from what you’d have if you grated a block of cheese on your own. Have that mayonnaise-cheese mixture near at hand; say, put it next to the tomato/scallion/corn bowl.

IF you are using life-changing ricotta, such as the unbelievably smooth, whipped-cream-like stuff made by the Liuzzi people in North Haven, Connecticut, you will not need mayonnaise at all. I can’t honestly recommend using supermarket ricotta for a tomato pie: it’s too grainy. But if you live in a place where you can get this sort of ricotta — it looks as smooth as cream cheese — I urge you to put some in a tomato pie. A 1 lb. tub of cheese is too much for one tomato pie, but if you use about half of it in a pie, you’ll have enough cheese leftover to put in a nice pasta dish the next day, or to spread on a pizza, or whatever floats your boat.

By this time, your oven is hot. Roll out your first crust. Take 1/3 of your biscuit dough from the fridge, roll it out nicely so that you have a circle that will fill the bottom of your pie pan and come up the sides. This will be a thin, delicate round to move into the pan. I’m sure that there are clever ways to roll it out and fold it for safer moving (Deb Perelman talks about how to do this, in fact, at Smitten Kitchen) but I didn’t find it so hard to just pick it up and move it six inches to the pan. So do it. img_7193Sprinkle a couple tablespoons of your hard cheese (some of your cheddar or Parmesan, say) onto the crust. What you’re doing preparing the bottom crust so that it won’t turn into a sodden mess by the end of final baking. Bake the bottom crust for about ten minutes.

This is important: don’t let it get particularly brown. It has to be cooked through, and risen a bit; but you don’t need to bake it too long because it’s going to be put back into the oven for another 30 minutes. In these ten minutes, you can wash prep dishes and drain any juices you can from the bowl of tomatoes and corn and scallions (or, tomato and minced red pepper and parsley and basil, or whatever combination you’ve got in there). If you’re very enterprising you can save the liquids from all this tomato draining to use in stock or something.img_7194

Remove the crust from the oven once it’s done, and get to work assembling the rest of the pie. With a spoon or a spatula spread a thin layer of the mayo-cheese goop (or your ricotta) on top of the crust. Then begin to layer on your veggies. You put down one thin layer of tomato-corn-whatever, and then sprinkle on some cheese, and then spread some of the mayonnaise (or ricotta) on top of that. Then you start again with the tomato-corn-whatever. It’s usually my experience that you get two layers of veggies out of this; there needs to be a layer of mayo-cheese on top when you’re done.

img_7198Then you take the rest of your biscuit dough out of the fridge and roll out another circle, and lay it on top of the whole shebang. Cut in some steam vents with a knife, press the edges together (if you’re someone who cares about aesthetics you could do some fancy fluting; I personally don’t give a crap), brush the top with a little melted butter, and put the whole thing in the oven again for 30 minutes.

When you pull this beast out of the oven, it is hot as hell: far too hot to eat immediately. I advise letting it sit on the counter for fifteen or twenty minutes before cutting into it. When you do cut inimg_7199to it, assuming you haven’t used a lot of a really runny cheese, the contents of the pie will be messy but nowhere near as messy as it is if you don’t bake the bottom crust first, because the bottom crust will not have dissolved into mush. Ricotta will probably be runnier than mayonnaise, but regardless: having baked the bottom crust first, you should be able to serve this with a pie server, and not have to just reach for your big serving spoon.

img_7201This pie is extremely filling. I always feel I should serve it with a side dish — a green salad, or some kind of green vegetable — and
that’s all well and good. But the fact is, my family of three — and we all eat like pigs — can only consume about half of a tomato pie in one meal. You could serve this with more elegant sides at a summer dinner party. (For example: A platter of asparagus could be roasted while you’re making this, and then served at room temperature: done and done.)

We have always enjoyed tomato pie, but it has also been responsible for several closet-sized rooms in the Museum of Tsuris. But today we are deaccessioning tomato pie from the Museum. In other words, tomato pie has been perfected, and we’re evicting it so we can make room for more kitchen disasters. Onward.

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